Why we love watching beauty queens blunder

ANSWERING THE CRITICS? Nia Sanchez celebrates after being crowned Miss USA 2014.
ANSWERING THE CRITICS? Nia Sanchez celebrates after being crowned Miss USA 2014.

The world loves to make fun of beauty pageant hopefuls. Every time a contestant struggles with a question, the media and everyone else jumps on the "let's make fun of this idiot" bandwagon, mocking the woman who, let's face it, is not vying for Mensa membership.

The newly crowned Miss USA, Nia Sanchez, is the latest target of worldwide ridicule, after she was unable to name the capital of her home state of Nevada.

So, naturally, social and mainstream media have gone into overdrive, describing Sanchez as a giggling mess because she failed to identify Carson City as the capital of the state in which she has resided for 18 months.

This is despite Sanchez's eloquent answer to an earlier question, in which she spoke about the under-reporting of sexual assault in US universities. Her answer, itself under-reported, went like this: "I believe that some colleges may potentially be afraid of having a bad reputation and that would be a reason [sexual assault] could be swept under the rug, because they don't want that to come out into the public.

"But I think more awareness is very important so women can learn how to protect themselves. As a fourth-degree black belt, I learnt from a young age that you need to be confident and be able to defend yourself. And I think that's something that we should start to really implement for a lot of women."

Not amazing, but not bad.

Of course, this doesn't matter: as far as the world is concerned. Nia Sanchez has "proven" that she is just another empty-headed woman. She has given smug and judgemental viewers another chance to say "I told you she was dumb!" even as they can't tear their eyes from her body and face.

But this "requirement" for "intelligence" in a competition focused on outward appearance is a relatively new phenomenon.

The beauty pageant industry has been around for generations. The first modern beauty contest was held in Scotland in 1859, where the wife of a Duke won, and was given the title: "The Queen of Beauty".

In America, the beauty pageant phenomenon really took off in 1921, with Atlantic City hosting parades of young women as a means of enticing summer holiday tourists.

Despite being dogged by controversies, the beauty pageant has endured, responding in its own way to the waves of feminist activists and political correctness by including sought-after contestant qualities once thought to be irrelevant in women, such as "personality" and "intelligence".

Beautiful women are still paraded in front of millions, dressed in glittering gowns and high-cut bikinis - only now, it is under the guise of celebrating their "talents" and "achievements" outside the sphere of superficial beauty.

On its website, the Miss America pitch is this: "Whether you want to become a doctor or a dancer, an accountant or an architect, the Miss America Organization has an opportunity that will help bring you closer to achieving your goals."

Maybe so, but this option is available to only a small percentage of young women who, in order to even be considered as contestants, must meet a highly unrealistic and specific standard of beauty that is unachievable for 99 per cent of the female population.

Yet now, they are also expected to answer questions which, while seemingly simple, are actually complicated and require a certain degree of knowledge.

Let's look at the example of Miss South Carolina Teen USA 2007, who was asked: "Recent polls show that a fifth of Americans can't locate the US on a world map. Why do you think this is?"

Yes, this questions can be answered well - in a thesis by a scholar dedicated to examining the American school system, or a journalist who has worked in the field for years and researched the topic extensively.

Yet, as we watched Miss South Carolina Teen USA fumble her way through her allocated 30-seconds, but I'm not quite sure what we expected. Do people genuinely believe that a teenage girl - and I mean, any teenager, really - can provide an intelligent and articulate response to such a loaded question?

The online vitriol that followed her response was astounding. Here are some of the finest examples: "This chick probably couldn't find earth on a world map"; "Forget her stupid answer, the real shock is how many contestants she beat to take the Miss South Carolina title. If she was the best in S. Carolina, imagine what the rest would have said."

Or let's look at this derisive response, in which a YouTube user peppered the contestant's answer with his own "witty" insights:

"I personally believe (do you bitch??), that 'US Americans' (wtf??) are unable to do so, because some people out there in our nation, don't have maps (are you one of them my dear?) and I believe that our education (Yes, you're on the right tack, don't ruin it now...), like, such as, in South Africa (Oh dear...) and Iraq (wow), like, such as, and I believe that they, our education over here in the US should help the US (no shit!?), should help South Africa, and should Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future, for our children (lol, good luck with that miss sunshine)."

Or this question, asked of Lara Dutta from India during the 2000 Miss Universe pageant: "Right now, there is a protest going on right outside here calling the Miss Universe pageant disrespectful of women. Convince them they are wrong."

A good response would require extensive knowledge of the history of feminism and women's suffrage, which I doubt most of the people who watch these pageants actually have. Yet they are happy to laugh and jeer at these women who are, more likely than not, completely unprepared for the questions they are asked.

So, let's call a spade a spade, and recognise the real reason behind beauty pageants: they are not designed to test the contestants' intellect or, shock horror, their capacity to make a noticeable difference in the world. Beauty contests for women exist for one reason only: to show off an unachievable type of beauty that will make men - and women - salivate.

The women who participate in these contests can't win. From the moment they sign up, they elicit scorn from those who oppose beauty pageants on the basis that they sexualise young women, as well as those who, while revelling in their beauty, also enjoy mocking these women for their stupidity as they are forced to answer difficult and loaded questions in 30 seconds. While wearing a diamond-studded bikini. During a BEAUTY CONTEST.

Come on, world, get a grip.

Sydney Morning Herald